Book Review: Violence Over the Land

By Jim Miles

Violence Over the Land – Indians and Empires in the Early American West.  Ned Blackhawk.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.  2006

Much is made of the American West.   It is projected as an idealized attitude, the rugged frontiersman, the self made individual, facing the wilderness, the large empty, untouched resource lands that beckoned the settlers ever westward.  At the same time it is seen as a savage wilderness, with primitive heathens living precariously in a hardscrabble environment, unaware of the advantages of civilization, its religion, agriculture, and education.  It is a west settled before the American age of empire, normally indicated to have started with the Spanish War beginning in 1898.

These myths have carried the popular front through books (many Zane Grey novels from my uncle’s bookshelf when I was a kid), movies, advertising (remember the Marlboro man), and politics (who could not remember Bush’s gun-slinging “bring ‘em on” attitude). 

The reality of the American West is a significantly different story.  Certainly there were rugged individuals, the Kit Carsons and Jim Bridgers who traded with and befriended the Indians in their own manner; yes, the ‘primitive heathens’ did lead a precarious starvation level existence.  What is missing is the story of empires – British, French, Spanish, Russian, and finally American – that resulted in the poverty and apparent primitiveness of the Indian groups, deprived of their horticultural lands and traditional hunting and gathering areas and techniques.  The empires brought with them not the civilizing and christianizing influence that supplied the apologetics for their purpose, but centuries of warfare, slavery, disease, environmental destruction, and murder – a ‘violence over the land’ – that resulted in the effective genocide of the native population and their impoverishment in all aspects of life.

Ned Blackhawk’s “Violence Over the Land” presents the empirical record from the Spanish West, the areas of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and the Great Basin country of Utah and Nevada where the various Ute, Pauite and Shoshonee tribes lived.  The age of modern empire brought first the Spanish empire and its clashes with the British and French empires, followed by the Spanish and American clashes that resulted in American supremacy across the continent.  It is a perspective, of an expanding American empire, overtaking a weakened Spanish empire (after 1824, the Republic of Mexico), based on the view that American continental expansion was as much more about empire and empirical control of property, wealth and resources as any other civilizing drive. 

Why violence?  First because it “provides the clearest and at times only windows” into how the landscape was altered by European contact, well before the Americans arrived; Secondly, the violence changed the landscape “largely outside of colonial settlements and the purview of authorities.”  The violence against and between the people forces an ever-changing cultural landscape upon them that defies the traditional ethnographic and anthropological studies of native society.  While racial and cultural differences are used to explain the wretchedness and inferiority of the Indian people as it more readily explained their misery, their “poverty…remained intimately linked to American colonization.”  The cultural and geographical landscapes, real and ‘imagined’ (as in the inaccurate maps that included speculation as much as engineering) are in constant motion, constant change: “Violence and American nationhood, in short, progressed hand in hand.”

Blackhawk effectively weaves a story beginning with the Spanish, involving the rise of equestrian nations from captured and stolen horses, the effects of disease, the changes in tribal economies brought about by settlements and trade for products increasingly in demand as they became necessary for survival and accommodation to the newcomers, rifles and ammunition.   Slavery played a large role in the economies of the area. 

As the Spanish Empire floundered then vanished, American influence pushed through former French territories, and the British pushed forward from the north.  The fur trade increasingly changed the economies, pulling the Indians further away from their native economies into the sphere of European trade and values, furs for food, furs for weapons.  The collapse of the fur trade and the gold and silver rushes that followed changed the Indian economies and culture permanently, and held them captive to European goods.  Along with the trade and the mineral wealth, settlers followed, looking at the ‘barren’ landscape as their right to property.  

All this was fully imbued with violence.  At first contact, “the displacement of colonial violence” resulted in the creation of “the region’s most powerful indigenous alliance,” the Utes and Comanches.  The violence visited upon them became “woven into the fabric of Comanche society”, becoming further displaced to “more distant Native groups”.   The violent encounters “shaped everyday life both within and outside colonial society.”  Violence served many purposes: communicating “status and honour”, institutionalized racism, the recovery of cultural dignity, and the supply of labour for farmers, ranchers, and miners.

While the Spanish and Mexicans struggled to find a balance with the native population, accommodating with them rather than intent on exterminating them, the arrival of “Anglo-American traders, explorers, and soon settlers carried different imperial visions…the dispossession of Native communities.” While the Utes were “prepared to enter into diplomatic relations with U.S.  representatives” the agreements made were never fully honoured if at all.  The American beliefs became the compelling of the Indians to submit to their demands – “dispossession, removal, forced internment, ethnic cleansing” – by force if necessary, later to become a full militarization of the situation.  After centuries of colonial-imperial violence the legacy remains of “contestation, cultural resistance, and abject dehumanization” with children forced into schools, and adults working as wage labourers on the margins of the economy.  

The violence that is the subject of this book, of “Indians and Empires” carries itself forward today with American imperial ambitions around the globe.  It is both the predominant military violence and its inter-woven cultural aspects, with the changing manner of accommodation by the groups that encounter and resist that violence.  The American empire was born of violence, and as ably demonstrated by “Violence Over the Land” grew through violence to become the violent society and empire it remains today.

Ned Blackhawk has done much justice to the history of his people and the manner in which the west developed, and the manner in which the American empire progressed.  There are many moments in the book when the descriptions brought the thought “same old same old” to mind in relation to current events, but the intelligent reader will surely recognize the ongoing similarities of operations.  The main fault I found with the work was the poor use of maps.  With an ever changing cartography and many overlapping boundaries, a series of maps more clearly labelled than the few he has would benefit any reader not familiar with the landscapes and territories of the American west.  So buy a good atlas to accompany the book, and the details and terrain will add new perspectives to the historical understanding of the American mythological west and its modern incarnation. 

-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor of opinion pieces and book reviews to Palestine Chronicles.  His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification by corporate governance and by the American government. 

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